ANNANDALE, NJ - Should the Summit High School Varsity Football Team go on to achieve the success they aspire to this season, they may look back on a warm, humid early-September night as the pivotal moment.
Playing the type of game that normally comes via a season opener, specifically far less than flawless from an execution standpoint, The Maroon & White dug down and found a way to get the job done. While it may not be on ESPN Classic in the foreseeable future, it's a 'W', and it came out of the kind of contest that Summit might have not have prevailed in last year.
The Hilltoppers gritty 24-13 win at North Hunterdon was not notable for its performance but rather for a singular achievement. Summit overcame a long bus ride, an opponent they have never faced and knew relatively little about, a steamy night that saw multiple players cramping up, and the small fact that they committed 20 penalties on the night which cost them 200 yards and, in the process, likely multiple scores.
That's right - 20 penalties for 200 yards. And they won.
"This was the perfect first game because we played a quality opponent before a big crowd in a place we've never been, made some mistakes, but we found a way to overcome the challenges and get the win," said Head Coach Kevin Kostibos.
While it was never going to be easy, Summit made things look pretty straightforward in a workmanlike first quarter that saw them take a 14-0 lead.
Senior quarterback and team captain Jake Froschauer galloped over from the six-yard line at the 5;39 mark of the first quarter -- after Stephen Sajer recovered Summit's own punt that sailed downfield and ricocheted off a North Hunterdon player who was blocking to set up a possible return -- and senior running back senior Sam Zanelli bolted into the end zone from three yards out a couple of minutes later. Senior Jack Johnson added both PAT's and the Hilltoppers led by two touchdowns after the opening 12 minutes.
Summit's defense was stymying the Lions, and the the Hilltoppers looked a step quicker than their opponents, but the penalty bug started to bite Summit in the second quarter and it had a doubly negative effect, snuffing out some promising offensive drives and forcing punts, and giving North Hunterdon's offense more time on the field, as well as some second-chance and short-yardage plays while they were there.
Soon, the Lions began finding some success with their read option offense, as quarterback Matt Busher began gashing the Hilltopper defense on the ground. Busher, who finished the night with 165 yards on 21 carries, was ostensibly the offense for North Hunterdon, as the entire rest of his teammates only accounted for 110 yards.
Summit's defense forced a fumble, recovered by junior linebacker Peter Maldonado, but the offense was unable to get untracked, and finally the Lions broke through when Busher ran six yards up the middle at the 4:12 of the second quarter to cut the lead to 14-7 after the PAT, which is how the half ended.
The third quarter looked a carbon copy of the second. Summit struggling to move the ball, then seeing a penalty flag on the field when they did find traction. Busher was busting some impressive runs, but the Hilltopper defense was able to keep the Lions out of the 'Red Zone', and the frame ended scoreless.
Heading into the final 12 minutes it was clear that whichever team scored next was likely to come away victorious, and that it would likely take a break -- such as a key special teams play or turnover --- to lead to that scoring play. Turns out, it actually took two such plays.
Summit got an offensive push late on in the quarter and, though the drive eventually stalled, Johnson nailed a 37-yard field goal to put Summit up 17-7 with 4:10 remaining.
Ironically, North Hunterdon was flagged for a running into Johnson on the field goal, and the penalty -- if accepted -- would have given Summit a first down at the Lions' 10-yard line, but it also would have wiped out the successful field goal. Kostibos, who said post-game that never considered taking the points off the board, declined the penalty.
On the ensuing kick off, a host of Hilltoppers jarred the ball loose from the North Hunterdon kick returner, and senior Craig Ackerly recovered the fumble. Two plays later, senior Jack Washburn ran a counter play to perfection, bursting through the left side of the line and scampering 19 yards to pay dirt.
Ahead 24-7 with just over three minutes remaining, Summit had the game in hand but, even then, a couple of penalties allowed North Hunterdon to drive down the field and score. The touchdown pass came inside the games final 20 seconds, however, and it was far too little, too late for the Lions.
"We wanted to play faster, but you can't commit penalties and play with tempo. In addition to wiping out big gains, it takes you out of your rhythm," added Kostibos. "I thought our defense had a strong game. They hurt us with one play in their offense, but other than that we shut them down. We didn't know much about them, and we saw some looks and coverages on both sides of the ball that we hadn't expected, but we made the adjustments and the plays we needed to make to get the win."
Summit (1-0) returns home to Investors Bank Field for their home opener September 17 versus Immaculata. Kick off is schedule for 1 p.m.